So he has really done it: Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron pronounced the R word! He promised his voters an ‘in or out’ referendum on EU membership in 2017 – if he does not succeed in negotiating more preferable terms for the UK, that is. And if he gets re-elected, of course. Yet, Continental Europe, like a disenchanted lover, shakes its head in disbelief: ‘How could you, David? Playing Vabanque with the European idea(l) to win a few Euroskeptic votes and to appease the disunited Conservatives!’
In my view, there is much more than party politics to Cameron’s speech on the future of Europe. In this article I explore three reasons why it is time to give Britons a chance to re-evaluate their relationship to the EU and why this might actually turn out to be a good thing for everyone.
#1 Britons generally do not consider themselves European
About 400,000 years ago, Britain was not an island. Scientists believe that a one-off environmental shock in the form of a mega-flood washed away the bridge of land that connected the country with continental Europe. This event not only changed the course of the Channel River but of world history. Geopolitically the UK sees itself as an independent island nation, an entity between continental Europe and North America, with much closer emotional ties to the US. Combined with predominantly Euroskeptic media sledgehammering the disadvantages of pooled sovereignty into any halfway receptive mind, this makes for a highly reserved attitude towards the European Union.
In 1946 Churchill proclaimed in Zurich: ‘We must build a kind of United States of Europe!’ Surely Britons must have been more Europhile in the past. Must they really? Nowhere in the speech does Churchill mention that the UK should be a member of the U.S.E. He states, on the contrary ‘France and Germany must take the lead together.’ And his closing remarks make it very clear which role he intends for the UK: ‘Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia (…) must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine.’ Churchill puts Britain in the same position as Russia and the US – as a ‘friend and sponsor’ of this new European entity, not as a member!
#2 Britain joined the EEC for economic reasons
Britain’s EU membership has never been a love match; it has been a marriage of convenience. In 1963 the British economy was declining while the European Economic Community was doing well. Joining the club, a thriving free trade area, suddenly looked far more attractive than in 1957, when the UK snubbed the EEC because it considered itself a global power with horizons beyond the European Continent. Ten years later, in 1973, France stopped cold-shouldering Britain and the country joined the EEC. Since then, the UK constantly performs a cost-benefit analysis of its participation in the European project.
In the eyes of many British citizens the financial crisis has pushed the balance into the red. The Sun never misses an opportunity to point out that Britain is now the second largest net-contributor to the EU budget, trailing only Germany. In times of persistent high unemployment and stagnant economic growth at home, EU membership is perceived as an additional drain on the British economy. Taxpayers are outraged that they are being forced to bail out other European countries and xenophobia is on the rise. In short, this marriage of convenience has become rather inconvenient. As a crestfallen citizen in an internet forum expressed it: ‘What we thought we had signed up to, a free trade area, has become a quasi-super state imposing its will on us(…).’ The euro group’s calls for sustainable fiscal policies and closer cooperation, while paramount for the survival of the single currency, is certainly not going to win back Britannia’s affection. Indeed, it looks as though she is filing for divorce.
#3 Democracy cannot ignore the citizens
How long can and should a country’s leadership ignore the demands of the citizens? According to the results of YouGov’s surveys for the Sunday Times, a large proportion of Britons are in favor of leaving the European Union. But what they want even more is a say in the matter, an in/out referendum. In this light Cameron’s promise to try and renegotiate the terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU and, if this proves unsuccessful, a referendum appears like a logical step. It has been questioned how successful renegotiations can be. For one thing, Britain does not have much more to opt out from in addition to the single currency, the fiscal pact, banking union, the Schengen open borders arrangement etc. – and the patience of the other EU member states for British exceptionalism is wearing thin. But is a referendum really such a frightful prospect? Would it necessarily lead to a Brexit?
How to get the relationship back on track?
Every self-help book proclaims that ‘reminding yourself that you have a choice to stay married’ is one of the best tips to get your relationship back on track. Britannia needs to know that she is not a helpless damsel in distress, but rather a ‘woman who can make her own decisions,’ as the magazine Woman’s Day would phrase it. This seems to be confirmed by the recent YouGov surveys. In the run-up to Cameron’s long-awaited speech, more people would have voted for Britain to stay in the European Union than to leave – for the first time in years! The timing is no coincidence. People are finally being given a choice – now they can take a deep breath and remember the good moments of the marriage. Woman’s Day suggests further to ‘define your problems and make a financial plan together.’ Is this what Cameron has in mind when he speaks of ‘renegotiating our relationship with Europe?’ In any case, it appears the citizens are not disinclined to give it another try if David Cameron ‘said that Britain’s interests were now protected, and recommended that Britain remain a member of the EU.’ Only 25 per cent would still insist on leaving. It seems all that is left to do for Continental Europe is to give Britannia some space, take the fighting gloves off and burn our grudges.